On the very day that I emailed Zahra Billoo to ask her to appear on Other Voices to talk about rising anti-Muslim antagonism, a very disturbing event took place that drove home the timeliness of the upcoming program. Zahra is the Executive Director of the Bay Area chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the country’s leading leading civil rights and advocacy organization for American Muslims. On that December day, CAIR’s office in Santa Clara received a threatening letter in the mail. Even more alarming, the envelope contained a mysterious white powder, prompting fears of a possible anthrax attack. The police and fire departments were summoned and CAIR’s office had to be evacuated while a hazmat team inspected the premises. CAIR’s employees had to wait an anxious 36 hours before getting an all-clear from the authorities. (CAIR’s Washington, DC office received a similar envelope the same day and was also evacuated.)
In the wake of the Paris and San Bernardino terror attacks, and with ISIS frequenting news headlines, American Muslims are experiencing a frightening spike in anti-Muslim bigotry, including right here in the Bay Area. Zahra was able to join us for the January 5 episode of Other Voices, and she described in detail the current atmosphere of fear that hangs over the American Muslim community. Referring to the threatening letter that CAIR received, Zahra noted that receiving hate mail is not unusual for CAIR, since they are so visible in the community. But, she added, “The fact that speaking out, promoting diversity and acceptance, promoting civil rights, would lead to such vitriol is frightening.” While the Bay Area has a reputation for liberal attitudes and openness to diversity, Zahra noted, “We are not immune in the Bay Area.”
The recent spike in anti-Muslim attacks has taken many forms. Nationally, there has been an increase in threats or direct attacks on places of worship and, again, the Bay Area has experienced this as well. The country has also seen a spike in violence directed against individual American Muslims or people who have been “perceived” to be Muslim. And the number of hate-filled verbal assaults against Muslims is similarly climbing.
Zahra was joined on the program by Mike German, a Fellow at the Liberty and National Security Program of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU’s School of Law. (Thanks to Midpen Media’s new studio, Mike was able to join us via Skype from his home in the Washington, DC suburbs.) Before becoming an outspoken civil rights activist, Mike served for 19 years as a special agent with the FBI, where he specialized in domestic terrorism. Mike worked undercover, infiltrating white supremacist groups that were threatening violence.
On the “Other Voices“ program, Mike talked about another, less visible form of backlash against the American Muslim community — increased surveillance by law enforcement. Mike was highly critical of the nature of this increased FBI surveillance, noting that it was not the kind of work he was engaged in when he was with the FBI. Back then, he noted, they were carrying out criminal investigations based on evidence of an impending crime. These days, Mike contrasted, the FBI is simply compiling massive databases on American Muslims, without so much as a hint of criminal activity.
It isn’t all bad news for the American Muslim community. Because they are so visible and often in the news, CAIR has received warm offers of support and solidarity from other groups and other segments of society. Most notable among these, perhaps, are the expressions of support and understanding from the Japanese American community, prompted by their own history of intimidation — and official internment — also born of war-induced hysteria. CAIR has also received support from the Black Lives Matter movement and the LGBT community.
Asked what average people can do to respond to this disturbing trend of anti-Muslim bigotry, Zahra promptly responded, “I would suggest a few things. One, get to know their Muslim neighbors. Two, speak out against racism and violence. And three, make sure others are hearing you, whether it’s through independent media or speaking to their elected officials.” We hope you’ll watch this bit of independent media and hear Zahra’s message.
written By Paul George
Paul George is the Director of Peninsula Peace and Justice Center, based in Palo Alto. He has been producing and hosting Other Voices at the Midpen Media Center for 19 years.